Conference message is people are key to lean

Posted on 4 Jul 2014 by Victoria Fitzgerald

The resounding message from the 5th Annual European Lean Management Conference was a focus on people. An organisation is only as successful as the people within it. Only with respect and understanding can leadership create an environment conducive operational excellence.

Spread over two days, the conference featured a plethora of lean experts, enthusiasts and academics from the field, discussing a broad range of topics aimed at easing the transition of lean across borders.

LMJ editorial board member Joseph Paris returned to the conference stage with his presentation, Guerrilla transformation: turning an insurgency into a movement. Paris highlighted community as both an inhibitor and enabler of eliminating waste and adding value. Joseph underlined face-to-face interaction and employee autonomy interaction as key to gaining a unified workforce.

Graham White, director of human resources Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust took the third keynote slot of the morning with his presentation emphasising the importance of involving HR in a lean transformation.

Graham’s vibrant and engaging style both inspired and challenged delegates. His presentation touched upon how support functions support proactive team members and focused on the work of HR in delivering intrinsic motivation for all of the workforce by creating a culture of engagement not only compliance of corporate rules. Graham emphasised trust at the heart of a healthy culture and shared his goals of setting vision and values in an organisation as a top priority to allow people to find their own way to accomplish the objectives. He highlighted managers as a sources of help and not just instruction.

In the first of day two’s breakout sessions, Klaus Lyck Petersen, group process manager for Solar Group (Denmark), discussed the strained journey his team undertook to change the silo mentality within the company to create a process-orientated lean system.

Incorporating lean has not been easy for Solar, when Klaus and his team started the journey of implementation seven years ago, the board wasn’t even aware of what lean is. However, from this troubled beginning the company has created a point by point system, based around a fluid and consistently evolving top-down, ‘house’ like method.

Like many of the speakers at this year’s conference, the focus was never too far from people. Klaus described the need to get people on board, to train and nurture a lean environment before focusing on the system as a whole, the process and people have to come first in their model. The fact that no one within Solar had any prior knowledge of lean merely underlines this.

Petersen’s team discovered that different departments needed to converse more often, amongst themselves and suppliers especially. Time was specifically set aside to listen to people’s problems across the board and incorporate them into the lean program. The team mainly achieved this through clear and concise function maps, similar to Toyota’s original lean approach, linking all individual jobs and roles to their place within the larger system.

From here the system became king, via a disastrous experience with SAP that almost crippled the company that led to them changing their entire template, the approach had to focus around the customer. Deliveries had to be collected from the supplier, delivered to the customer, and set up within twelve hours throughout the Scandinavian region, a tall order they continue to rise above.

The message that ran throughout Klaus’ presentation, and the one which he left us with, was to always evolve and adapt, to listen to staff and mould a model around them and the customer.

Faith Geary, Head of Continuous Improvement for the Ministry of Justice, discussed the logistical challenges of implementing continuous improvement programs across a wide range of contrasting teams and departments, all within an institution forced to cut 23% of running costs.

From her own experience, mirroring the experiences of many of those in the audience during a lively session, Geary outlined the fact that many teams resist lean integration, due to a lack of understanding, bullishness and the fact many simply don’t “naturally notice waste”. However, by Faith’s own definition, lean runs on people. At first no one could understand the point, especially in a time when the ministry needed to cut £200 million from the budget.

This meant a change of attitude was required, departments needed to communicate and work alongside one another more effectively, and those in positions of power needed to provide more than lip service. Faith and her team took it upon themselves to impose lean processes throughout the Ministry.

The first step taken was to create a centralised training program, the Central Lean Academy, to increase general lean knowledge throughout specific departments and roles. While this initiative was completely taken on board by some, for instance the Court Service has trained over 500,000 staff, the team encountered extreme resistance with others.

Many staff, especially within the prison system, continued to have an arrogant attitude towards lean, considering it unnecessary and merely a court initiative, while others became angry when they encountered difficulty.

To target this they attempted to engage more with staff, to understand the issues they faced in terms of implementations and lower funding. They also ensured effective leaders were sent briefly to oversee different departments and promote faith in lean. Perhaps the most radical of the initiatives was bringing in prison offenders to discuss where they saw waste, and provide a completely different view from the norm, an entirely left-field proposition.

However, despite the initial struggle lean is now becoming fully engrained in the way the Ministry of Justice operates, and recent staff surveys suggested 72% of people now considered lean to be beneficial to their work. Sadly, being the Head of Continuous Improvement means Faith might soon work herself out of a job.

In the final breakout session of the day, Professor Nick Rich, Head of HRM and Organisational studies and Deputy Dean for Engagement at Swansea University, focused his boisterous presenting style on the mish-mashed and chaotic nature of policy deployment.

Throughout the policy deployment process, staff can find themselves confused, angry and downright uncertain as to what their role actually requires. Focusing on techniques pioneered by Toyota, and his own experiences within their factories, Rich attempted to simplify the entire deployment process.

This ideal of understanding is imperative to his lean beliefs, basing much on 5s and Hosin Kanri – or the “shining needle” of direction. Encompassing a general push toward common goals and priorities, while breaking down departmental barriers, Hosin Kanri is underpinned by logic, everyone must know their place and expectations.

Rich bemoaned the common implementation system whereby too much is taken on too soon, creating a middle management nightmare, and risking serious delay if an over-worked member of staff leaves. Step-by-step is the theme, pick only a few improvements at a time and ensure realistic planning time of no more than 3-5 years, anything more and “the world changes too much”.

However this shouldn’t be confused with stagnation. Following Hosin Kanri once more, you need to look forward, and assess the potential market opportunities to grow and expand, using the example of Toyota’s hybrid-centric policy of the last decade, to show the benefits of logically dictating where the market could go.

To highlight just how simple planning can be, and undoubtedly keep a fatigued audience on their toes, the X charts came out. These outline goals, objectives and how to achieve them through realistic improvements over time, and in turn act as a lean system on their own, similar to a ‘top down’ method.

Finally, Rich left the crowd on a typically positive note, claiming “there’s plenty of room for growth now we’re coming out of a recession”.